big data | December 02, 2014

The Same Old Songs: Is Big Data Saving (or Destroying) the Music Biz? Derek Thompson

Why do new hit songs sound exactly like old hit songs? Is the music business allergic to artistic innovation—or just savvy about what its customers really want? And why does the top 1 percent of bands now account for nearly 80% of all revenue from recorded music? In a major Atlantic article, Lavin speaker Derek Thompson looks at how the music industry—once a haven for intuitive decision-making—is being upended by statistics. Focusing on the Shazam app, Thompson renders a vivid portrait of how consumers now stumble upon, share, and buy music. On the business side, he examines how companies are using big data tools to map user behavior and turn profits.

Appearing on MSNBC, Thompson notes: “All this information that we're spitting about our relationship to music online is being used in order to determine the future of music.” Companies, he writes in the Atlantic, are "using it to figure out which songs are going to be hits before most people know they're going to be hits.”

Thompson's piece touches on a wide range of topics: How Shazam tracked the spread of Lorde's hit song “Royals” around the world. How concert promoters use Spotify to route tours. Why Wikipedia is better than Facebook at gauging a band's popularity. And why radio—which itself is becoming more big data-fied—is still so important.

Here's Thompson, in the Atlantic, getting to the consumer choice aspect of the matter:

“What do people want to hear next? It’s a question that label executives once answered largely by trusting their gut. But data about our preferences have shifted the balance of power, replacing experts’ instincts with the wisdom of the crowd. As a result, labels have gotten much better at understanding what we want to listen to."

But, perhaps thankfully, not all aspects of the art are undergoing this data-centric revolution. “Producers and artists pay close attention to trends,” he writes, “but they’re not swimming in spreadsheets quite like the suits at the labels are.”

So why do people want to hear the same old song, over and over again? Thompson—who also speaks often on millennials—has an answer for that, too. It's a psychological term called “fluency.” As he told MSNBC, we are simply predisposed to like “ideas that are more familiar, songs that are more familiar, movies, characters that are more familiar.” (See Lynda Obst's similar argument on how this familiarity is ruining the movie business.) And here's the scientific answer to why we like what we already like: “They don't require as much cognitive energy to think about.” So the songs, truly, remain the same, even as the industry around them is shocked by seismic changes.

In his talks, Thompson breaks down trends, reveals the habits of millennials, and explains how these things are churning America's economic engine right now. To book Derek Thompson as a speaker for your next event, contact The Lavin Agency.